What You Need to Know About Changing Lives Through Literature

Not all criminals need to have the book thrown at them—some are reading to get out of crime, and finding that literature helps them change their lives.

As Massachusetts begins the process of giving the most notorious Boston gangster his due, most of us aren’t thinking about the kind of lawbreakers who want a way out of the cycle of crime. But a committee met this week to expand a little-known program that does exactly that.

Trial Court Chief Justices Robert Mulligan and Paula Carey want to ensure that more opportunities exist for probationers throughout Massachusetts to become law-abiding citizens. They want the reading program Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) to “emerge from the shadows.” While at least 200 probationers across the state have graduated from the program this year, the judges, probation officers, and professors on the committee are seeking to increase participation and graduation numbers.

CLTL is essentially a collaboration between the educational and criminal justice systems. The program features a “democratic” reading group, and it offers those on probation a chance at rehabilitation. What makes CLTL unique is that probationers participate as do professors, probation officers, and judges. But CLTL is not meant to be therapy. During a period of 12-14 weeks, participants read and discuss six or seven books—most programs focus on modern American Literature—and at the end of the program, they attend a graduation ceremony in a full courtroom. It’s quite symbolic that the very place where participants were once punished as criminals becomes a place where they can be recognized for their success.

The program dates back to 1991 and is the brainchild of Judge Robert Kane, who was then a Massachusetts District Court judge, and English professor Robert Waxler from UMass Dartmouth. They enlisted Wayne St. Pierre, a probation officer from the New Bedford District Court, for CLTL’s first session. Since then, the program has blossomed, won several awards, and found followers across the state. Twelve states including Maine, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, have all run CLTL programs through the years, and an offshoot in England is flourishing. Earlier this year, 13 programs were held with connections to different courts, such as Dorchester, Cambridge, Chelsea, Lynn, and Lowell. But most importantly, its role in reducing probationers’ return to crime is clear: After participating in CLTL, there was a significant drop in arrests and their severity, UMass Professor Russell Schutt reported in a 2011 recidivism study.

I became involved with CLTL in 1992 when Joseph Dever, then Presiding Justice of the Lynn District Court, Valarie Harris, a Lynn Probation Officer, and I created the Lynn-Lowell program to include women. As a professor, I felt the power of how books could become teachers and their themes, lessons. One of our students, a graduate from the Lynn-Lowell program named Karla, had bouts with addiction, poverty, and prostitution. She, like many participants, was reluctant to believe that books could have anything to do with helping her change her life.

At the end of the program, she was asked to write about her reactions. Her words include a response to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, posted on the CLTL website. They show the power of literature for self-reflection:

“Janie wasn’t to be pitied. She did not do everything that was expected of her…. She knew Logan Killicks had been forced upon her as a husband, just because he had a job and was a good man. She married him but never loved him or learned to love him. She soon learned that Logan was a typical black man at that time and thought all he had to do was put food on the table and provide shelter for her, and she would be the perfect loving wife….Like Janie, I don’t want to be anyone’s slave or servant, nor do I want to be someone who’s just around for convenience. I want to be treated as an equal….As Janie said, there are two things everyone has to do for themselves and that’s go to God and find out about living on their own.”

Literature has been used in prisons to teach life lessons like these for years, but CLTL is a program for those on probation and that’s rare. While CLTL in Massachusetts has gone through periods with and without funding, it has always managed to find books and eager practitioners. That’s because the program works, says Jean Flanagan, an adjunct professor at several Massachusetts colleges and a CLTL facilitator. “For some of the students, this is the first time anyone has listened to them,” Flanagan said via email. “The program helps them with self esteem and dignity and provides a safe environment for learning about literature and about life. It gives them hope and confidence to change.”